Thursday, May 31, 2007

"Your Second Life: Living and Building in Second Life"

A Short Course Taught in HUMlab
Umeå University 31 May 2007

Some Antecedents:
To begin with a few examples from world history which have features that are reflected in Second Life to varying degrees. A person standing behind or within another identity that is somehow separated from the everyday, but at the same time is defined by it. In earlier times such definitions were often part of experiencing the divine. The association with transformation, duality, self and the divine mirrors the sacred place that language often took in pre-industrial societies. As well this ‘second’ identity is performed usually as part of or to a group. These antecedent examples are primarily visual with a secondary quality of audio. Theater, ritual and multimedia are present in each as well.

Dancing dwarfs in ivory. The figures move through the use of strings and a pulley.Found at Lisht during excavations in 1934 by the Metropolitan Museum of Art,New York, which has a fourth dwarf from the set. Height - 7.8 cm. Egypt - Middle Kingdom - 12th Dynasty (1971-1803 BCE)

The Lord of Flayed Skins. Xipe Totec.
Codex Rios 27 (26v) Fourteenth Trecena: Thipetotec (Xipe Totec)
From the Borgia Group Codices (Mostly pre-Colombian from central-Mexico)

Thipetotec is he whom we have mentioned above as performing penance, like another Quetzalcoatle, on the mountain of thorns. They named him The Mournful Combatant: they celebrated a great festival in his honor, which they called Tlaxipehualiztli (Tlacaxipehualiztli).
He was one of the gods of the Tzapotecas (Zapotecs). They dressed themselves on his festival in human skins taken from those whom they had slain in war; because they say that he was the first who clothed himself in this manner. They fasted on the three first signs of his festival, during which they only ate at noon.

The medieval European pilgrim clothed themselves in religious charms and symbols and performed rituals throughout their journey. The journey took place at specific times of the year and followed prescribed routes and along the way there were hundreds of sites to visit. These sites often contained relics from religious stories. A pilgrim became part of a stream of people who performed their faith in very public settings in a world that was filled with symbols and their meaning. One of the most famous of these pilgrims who has left us his writings is Felix Fabri.

Felix Fabri
Fabri was a German Dominican Friar of the Preaching Order, born in 1441 or 1442, in Zurich. Died in Ulm, Germany in 1502 where he spent most of his life. Friar Felix made two pilgrimages to the Holy Land, in 1480 and again in 1483-4. He wrote two accounts of his travels, one in German (Ulm, 1556); the other in Latin. The former is rather brief; the other is very complete and accurate in its descriptions of the places he visited. This second journal made Fabri one of the most distinguished and learned writers of the fifteenth century. The second of Fabri’s texts is online at:

Vietnamese Water Puppets

Vietnamese water puppetry is thought to have originated in the Red River Delta in Vietnam in the Ly Dynasty (12th century). When the rice field would flood the villagers would entertain each other using this puppet form. With the puppeteers hidden by the backdrop and their rods and strings hidden by the 4 by 4 meter pool of water, the puppets display what appears to be autonomous agency. This amazing multimedia performance, with orchestra and singers to the sides, is an example of the subject/s being distributed over space (and consequentially time). Not unlike a 3D online world.

Some Historical Background on Virtual Worlds
Virtual Worlds Timeline: the Origins and Evolution of Social Virtual Worlds

A project initiated by author, theorist and explorer Bruce Damer (Bruce sits on the HUMlab board of advisors and he will be visiting us in September – the May tour he writes of on the website was postponed). The Virtual Worlds Timeline documents and archives the history of Social Virtual World. Second Life is a social virtual world. On the site are audio and visual downloads of Bruce’s presentations and text explaining what it is all about.

Some other online virtual worlds:

Some Philosophy
It is convenient to describe the attention we pay to three dimensional digital depictions of interactive space as being engaged with the virtual, secondary, there metaverse. As opposed to the real, primary here universe. This is a common way of thinking about what I am compelled to call virtual worlds. However, by even taking a quick look at Second Life, as we are going to do today, you will hopefully be as certain as I am that these systems of representation and interaction are changing the ‘real’ world as they are so influenced by it.

My approach to virtual worlds is as a scholar of English literature and as a reformed performance artist (I still have occasional relapses). This means I look at language and other symbolic meaning systems and the use of spatial attributes (including design, visual culture, and the way space and time are represented) to analyze these artifacts as texts. A text is any system of signs or symbols that mean something to others. In 1874 the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé published a series of articles on fashion. Mallarmé published them in a magazine which he wrote entirely himself but using a number of male and female pseudonyms. He analyzes, criticizes and contextualizes the fashion system which he was surrounded by in the Paris of 1874. One critic describes a present day translation of the work (which I have on the book board of this short course) as:

...exploring his great interest, fashion - its rules, philosophy and rhetoric of persuasion - from the inside, placing the work somewhere between Baudelaire's The Painter of Modern Life and Barthes' semiology The Fashion System.

Both of Baudelaire’s and Barthes’ texts are also well worth looking at to develop an understanding of how we all perform, interpret and construct representations of meaning as we go about being ‘ourselves’. In Second Life the construction of identity has reached a level that may have interested Mallarmé greatly.

What is Second Life?
Look at the Wikpedia entry

Second Life is becoming the most popular online social 3D system so far. Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) such as World of Warcraft and Everquest are more popular according to user statistics (as of January 2007 31 million Chinese Internet users engage in some form of online game play), but Second Life is not a game, it is not a network, according to digital media theorist Howard Rheingold it is not a virtual community; it is a world (with communities in it).

Currently there are around 7 million registered accounts in Second Life, of course many of these may not be active or even be people, many could be bots (artificial intelligence computer programs that can appear to have a personality). At any one time there is usually between 10 000 and 50 000 users in the world, depending on the time and what events are going on. Second Life is a complex network of online 3D spaces (presented as islands of various sizes) comprising in total approx. 155 000 sq miles of land where avatars (digital figures or representations of you and others) interact and perform; building structures, communicating, exchanging and conflicting. The median age for users of Second Life is 35 for males and 32 for females. Entry into the Second Life World is free but interaction in a material sense can often require money. This interaction can be as a land owner, running a business, selling a service, creating art, music, or organizing meetings festivals and other types of gathering.
Money in Second Life is Linden Dollars: $L. At the moment there are about $L250 to $US1 so it is not a strong currency but the turnover of $L is large. See:

Peter Zackariasson is a HUMlab affiliated doctoral researcher who has done work on the economies of online virtual worlds. The wealth generated in virtual worlds is not small or pretend; it is one example of how the virtual can become very real.

Let’s look at the video promotion made by the company behind Second Life, Linden Research, Inc (commonly referred to as Linden Lab):

What do you do with Second Life?
The Swedish state opened an embassy in Second Life this week. Describing the event the national television broadcaster SVT’s culture news said:

“A pretend embassy in a pretend world...What is this actually? There was grave unworldly talk about a terrorist attack against the pretend embassy when at the same time it is nothing other than an interactive information brochure which looks like a computer game from the 1990s.” Kulturnyheternas Fredrik Sahlin 30 May 2007.

I think this statement shows a lack of understanding for what an online 3D world is and can be (Sahlin is actually a film critic). Second Life is not a visual feast, although it can be engaging and even beautiful. The concept of terror may be very different in Second Life than what it is in the real world today. However, there is terrorism of a kind in Second Life. I witnessed a prolonged attack against the headquarters of the Second Life Liberation Army, itself a so-called terrorist organisation. These acts are code based disruptions to verything within an area of Second Life, they can destroy content and disrupt services.

Second Life is more than “an interactive information brochure” just like a blog is more than a diary and a film is more than a story. In Second Life my avatar can meet with other avtars and talk to the people behind them (voice communication is expected to be in Second Life by the end of June 2007), watch a film with them, give them a copy of an essay I wrote and communicate with one of our teachers at university in an informal seminar. None of this is possible in a brochure. With Second Life people run businesses, communicate, show their work, make music, learn things, share pornography, gamble, and do research. Some of my favourite examples of the more genteel of these are:

Not a strong point with me but I have visited a few shops in Second Life, I bought a virtual didgeridoo from a ‘virtual’ music shop which cost real money. As well it is possible to buy real things in Second Life. Telia Sonera is opening a shop in world soon, and many large companies do ordering from their sites in world. The situation in the USA when it comes to the people who use virtual worlds is very real:

A consortium of corporate training folks from Wal-Mart Stores (WMT), American Express (AXP ), Intel (INTC ), and more than 200 other companies, organized by learning and technology think tank The MASIE Center in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., is experimenting inside Second Life with ways for companies to foster more collaborative learning methods. Says Intel Corp. learning consultant Brent T. Schlenker: "We're trying to get in on the front end of this new workforce that will be coming."

Kzero has a blog and they do a lot of work with Second Life as a business world:

Second Life is a communication media. Embedded in all the hype and business are people talking to each other. Communication via text chat, Instant Messaging, video, image, audio stream and 3D constructions is everywhere in world.

Showing your stuff
Second Life is a bit like a playground for adults. Art abounds as does the bizarre. Some examples:

Clone Video

Synthetic Performances by Eva and Franco Mattes (a.k.a. 0100101110101101.ORG)
A series of reenactments of historical performances inside synthetic worlds such as Second Life. All actions are performed by Eva and Franco Mattes through their avatars, which were constructed out of their bodies and faces. People can attend the performances online, while in the making, or see the photo and video documentation afterwards. The series started in January 2007.

The Port

Imagining Place: Then entire body of "Imaging Place" work includes an archive of hundreds of locations and hours of narrative. John (Craig) Freeman currently has four scenes from this archive constructed in various locations around the Second Life grid. When a denizen of Second Life first arrives at an Imaging Place SL Scene he, she or it sees on the ground a large black and white satellite picture of the full disk of the Earth. An avatar can then walk over the Earth to a thin red line which leads to an adjacent higher level platform made of a high resolution aerial photograph of specific location from around the world. Mapped to the aerial images are networks of nodes constructed of primitive spherical geometry with panoramic photographs texture mapped to the interior. The avatar can walk to the center at one of these nodes and use a first person perspective to view the image, giving the user the sensation of being immersed in the location.

Music is everywhere in Second Life. For about $US2 a day you can stream audio into the land that you either own or are a member of (a lot of land in Second Life is group owned). Plus there are the performances. Some of the more famous ones so far are


Suzanne Vega

There are hundreds of cafes and oases where an avatar is playing music that is being streamed from someone’s lounge room or bedroom somewhere in the real world. One such soul is Natalie Moody who played at the opening of the Second House of Sweden

Before we go into Second Life, here are a few examples of educational initiatives happening in world:

The New Media Consortium
A network of over 200 universities colleges, libraries and research institutions that work in and with Second Life

The Berkman Centre for Internet law and Society at Harvard University
The Berkman Center taught CyberOne: Law in the Court of Public Opinion

I could go on but we should get into Second Life and look around. First some links for building:

Finding Good Sites in Second Life
Second life Tree
A directory of slurls (second life universal resource locators): accessing places in Second Life directly from the web.

We need to find ourselves a sandbox. First let’s all meet up at the new Swedish embassy and look around:

Click here:

1 comment:

Therese said...

What a great collection of resources, Jim! It will certainly make my exploring Second Life much easier. Hope your course went well!